If you had told me back in 2006 that in 2017 I’d be celebrating 10 years as co-owner of a Wine & Spirits Store in West Edmonton Mall, I would have laughed you out of the bar!
Back then, I was living a comfortable life in a charming condo in Vancouver’s fashionable Fairview slopes neighbourhood. I could stroll down to the sea wall, walk to Granville Island, buy fresh fish, veggies and flowers, meet friends for lunch, or simply enjoy the views. I worked in the travel industry, and took advantage of seeing the world. Life seemed pretty good.
Towards the end of that year, my boyfriend Grant, was asked to write a business plan for a store owner wanting to sell a store in Edmonton. He also worked in travel and was talented at writing business plans. He accepted the offer. And that’s when things got interesting.
By February 2007, we had visited the derelict store at West Edmonton Mall, and he convinced me that we should buy it. We could turn it into a “Destination Wine & Spirits store in a destination mall”, he said. His plan said it could work. “It would be a good change for us,” he said. The travel contracts had been drying up, so I tried to wrap my head around all this. I did like decorating.
In April, the owner of the store called to say, she no longer had a store to sell. The Mall was evicting her and she was clearing out her stuff. In shock, we were faced with having to rethink our next move. Within days, we received a surprise call from Mall Owner Don Ghermezian. He understood we were interested in the store, and if we could assure him that he would have a “damn good liquor store in his mall”, we could get the lease. Well, guess what?
After shocking our friends with the news, in May that year, we flew to Edmonton, signed the papers, lined up renovators and went to work. Liquor licenses, Business licenses, mall bureaucracy, painters, carpenters, etc. etc. In June, I sold my adorable condo, packed things up in a moving truck, loaded up the car and headed east, looking every bit like the Beverley Hillbillies. Grant and I lived in the Holiday Inn Express for a few weeks while we worked on many of the renos ourselves. We had nowhere to live yet. Decent rentals were scarce. In desperation, I called a business colleague in Edmonton I had known from my travel days. Lo and behold, he had a brand new condo he was thinking of renting. We signed the lease.
Opening day was July 1, 2007. Our first liquor order was based on a wine list Grant kept from wines he and a group of friends had tried and liked over the years. We added some vodkas, rye, scotch and beer to it, and Voila! Our first order arrived on June 30th. We stayed up all night stocking Ikea shelves that my dear Dad was quickly putting together for us as we went along. Our point of sale computer was delayed, we had no cashier station, or cash register. We opened on Canada Day that year using a fold up table and a cash box. We sold $300 worth of liquor!
For the next two years, it was me and Grant working 7 days a week, 10 hours a day, learning as we went along. Wine & Liquor Reps that had avoided the mall liquor store suddenly rediscovered there was a good store there and word spread. Local customers were thrilled to see a nice, clean store with interesting products in their neighbourhood. We marketed ourselves to mall employees and neighbours offering discounts if they shopped with us more than once. We started a customer e-newsletter, we networked, built a website, all while getting to know people in our new home town.
We worked hard, we had fun, and we learned everything we could about this new business, while injecting ideas and skills from our travel background. It was the best of days, it was the worst of days.
Interesting customers always dropped by. One day, a goat wandered in the store. His handler from the petting zoo was taking him for a walk. We used it as a photo op and took his picture with Grant holding a bottle of “ Goats Do Roam” wine. Another time, a charming young woman with her baby in the carriage was browsing and chatting with us. Grant went over to “coo coo”’ with the cute child, who happily kicked up her blanket to reveal a bottle of Gin that her mum wasn’t prepared to pay for. On Sundays we each started taking a day off, so only one of us worked. I had a regular older customer who came in, always smiling and chatting with me. One day, he asked if I was single and did I want to go out with him? Surprised, I smiled and said, sorry, taken. The couple shopping in the store at the time were amused. I told them if he’s been younger, tall, dark and handsome I’d have been single! We all laughed!
Applications from people wanting to work in the store started to come in. One guy’s resume stated he had experience as a “Shelf Stalker” we laughed our heads off.
Our first employee was nothing like what we had envisioned. Grant and I presumed we would hire an older, semi-retired person who enjoyed good wines and wanted a part time gig. Instead, a young, polite, good looking fellow of 18 inquired about part time work. He knew about wines because he and his grandfather discussed and shared wines together so he could learn about them. Kameron Wolford was hired. He was a terrific employee, customers loved him and he worked with us for five years until he finished school and went on to new adventures. We stay in touch. We’ve had a few challenges with employees, but proud to say we have good people who work with us for years.
In 2009 Aligra Wine & Spirits was the proud recipient of Best Liquor Retailer in Edmonton. A pleasant surprise acknowledging our efforts as the “newest kid in town”. Early on we began holding Wine Education Classes at the store, operated through Metro Continuing Education. I became certified through ISG Level 2, and then successfully completed the French Wine Scholar programme. Grant got his Level 2 WSet. We began conducting our own courses, and to date, continue having sold out classroom style events each month led by our own Sommelier, Ken Bracke who has been with us for six years.
We promoted long and hard our passion for B.C. Wines, carrying the largest selection in the province at one time. We held a BC Wine Fest in 2014 at the Edmonton Petroleum Club featuring more than 20 wineries and over 100 wines for consumers to taste. We have done Wine Maker tastings in the store, and dinners with them in restaurants. In 2014, we began our Wine Tour Programme taking 10 guests on an Okanagan Wine Tour. Since then we have escorted groups on a Bordeaux River Cruise, and last fall returned from South Africa with our Winos & Rhinos group. Next up, The Douro River in Portugal 2018. There’s lots more to come.
Grant has developed a loyal following of Danes in the province of Alberta. Each year, we bring in exclusively one to three palettes of Danish Akvavit which we sell to our database of more than 500 Danes.
Over the ten years, we’ve experienced personal health challenges, staff issues, business growing pains, and a constant opposition from local people who don’t want to come to West Edmonton Mall. We’ve also enjoyed wonderful repeat customers, loyal staff, endless learning, and new friends. Our business here has allowed us to purchase a home, take fabulous vacations, employ seven people, and have a quality of life we couldn’t have imagined if we’d stayed in Vancouver. We took a leap of faith at a time in our lives that people much younger than us wouldn’t have ever considered. It’s been a great ride.
We recently renegotiated our mall lease for another five years. Crazy? Maybe. But I wouldn’t want to have our store anywhere else in Edmonton. It’s unique. After all, where else would your customers show up in their bathrobes looking for a bottle of wine to take back to the hot tub in their hotel room? or have a bikini clad girl strolling in from the Waterpark needing a drink?